My recent cruise aboard Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus was entitled “Voyage to the Bering Sea.” It should have been called “way off the beaten track,” as the ports of call do not show up on any regular itineraries.
The trip began and ended in Anchorage, but the cruise portion went from Nome to Whittier. Cruise West handles the hotels before and/or after the cruise as necessary and did all of the organization for the flight from Anchorage to Nome.
Actually, every part of the trip that Cruise West organized was superbly well handled. In terms of ground logistics, it all was efficiently and effectively put together. And this was important due to the nature of the experience as well as the average age of the guests involved (way up there on the age scale).
Once we got to Nome, we set sail on the line’s flagship vessel to points above the Arctic Circle, across the date line, through and around the Bering Sea, the Shumagin Islands, the Pribilof Islands and more. The scheduled ports of call do not include names that roll trippingly off the regular cruiser’s tongue.
Making Landfall In Russia
The first place we were supposed to hit was Little Diomede Island, just two miles across from Big Diomede Island. Little is the United States, Big is Russia. Perhaps this is the point from which Sarah Palin meant to say she could see Russia. But weather being bad and local politics being somewhat flaky, we could not stop there. So it was on to Provideniya and Nuovo Chaplino on the upper north east coast of Russia, way up there on the Asian end of the country; it’s even further east than Siberia and so far away from the people that run the country that these small towns truly could be considered the lands that time forgot.
The passport/immigration procedure for getting into Russia was a tad archaic. We did need visas, and the entry procedures took place both on the ship and in a one-room shack on the run-down dock of Provideniya.
We toured the forlorn town (the cemetery was the highlight) and got to see a performance by local kids that was quite charming. The next day it was on to Nuovo Chaplino aboard some old trucks/buses; not comfortable, and the run down roads did not help either.
Along the way we did see the ruins of the barracks Stalin, built when he was afraid of being attacked by the US during WWII. In Nuovo Chaplino (the word Nuovo does mean New, but there were no signs of Old Chaplino), the highlight was seeing the partially chopped up carcass of a whale that was hauled ashore the day before. This is part of the subsistence living the locals endure. Weather was bad so that most of us hurried indoors to the school where we got to see another entertaining performance by the locals. And sample blubber in three different forms.
Back To The U.S.A.
Then it was back to the United States and the town of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. The population here was largely Yu’pik Eskimo, and they mostly spoke Siberian Yu’pik. While this was a much better off place than the Russian towns, it was hard to discern any reason why the next generation would stay here after they finished high school (other than continuing the local tradition, of course).
Next it was on to Nash Harbor on Nunivak Island where we had the choice of hiking out to spot the elusive Musk Ox (not spotted) or do the Tundra Trundle and view plants and rocks and the like. Rain and bad seas hit us again the next day and we went to plan C since Plans A and B were wiped out.
A note here about weather: It was pretty bleak throughout most of the trip, and the original itinerary had to be adjusted. While the overall experience was certainly affected by the weather for many onboard, the guides and crew did their utmost to provide the best experience possible.
By comparison to the towns that went before, Unalaska in the Aleutian Island chain was actually a big city, and we were bussed around to a variety of places, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the military highlights. The Aleutians were the only place where the Japanese attacked the U.S. besides Hawaii during WWII; memorials and museums honoring this are all over the place.
Weather again affected us the next day but we did a zodiac exploration and got to see a few bears rambling around ashore. The next day at Katmai National Park’s Geographic Harbor was “bear day,” and everyone got to see, from relatively close up, many a brown bear and cub walking around and taking the occasional break to rest or eat clams.
Kodiak the next day was certainly the biggest city along the way. There’s much to see including the oldest Russian building in the state and another performance by the locals. We were there almost the entire day, so guests had the chance to walk around and enjoy the place.
The fresh halibut I had for lunch at a local joint on the river was amazing, and the locally brewed beer was cold and delicious. Sailaway was gorgeous for awhile, which is a good thing in that this was the day of the sailaway deck party, but soon again, we were engulfed by fog.
The last morning we had amazing views of the Holgate Glacier, many other unnamed (at least to us) glaciers, wonderful waterfalls and a bear walking across in front of a glacier. Unfortunately, the weather turned again the last afternoon and many of us decided not to do the zodiac trips to avoid getting drenched.
Shore landings by zodiac were mostly of the wet landing variety, but the personnel did their best to avoid getting guests soaked. In some ports there were dock landings to go ashore, and that was much easier. On the days where we just did zodiac tours for nature purposes, the guides did a great job of pointing things out and steering us to the right places.
We managed to see a lot of whales along the way, some pretty close up and some identified by their spots way off in the distance. One afternoon when leaving port we passed an area that must have been highlighted in the bird newsletter. It was a miles-long stretch of millions of Short-tailed Shearwaters. I have never seen anything like this, especially since mixed in were a bunch of whales feeding on the same food-rich waters.
There were four guides that conducted lectures, conducted the tours and were always available to answer guest questions. I learned more about birds and geology and whales and bears than I ever did before. In addition, Tony Knowles, an ex-governor of Alaska, was on board and gave several talks about Alaska’s economy and politics.
Cruise West days are filled with visits to towns along the way along with wildlife and scenic adventures. Mixed in are lectures during the days when time permits. Prior to dinner there is a debriefing of the day’s activities and a discussion of the plans for the next day. Usually, after dinner, there is another talk.
The cruises are a bit of forced socializing in that zodiacs usually carry eight to ten people at a time, and most tables in the dining room are tables of four up to eight. The lounges are compact, so at key socializing (i.e., drinking) times, you usually wind up meeting new people or spending time with new friends.
The maitre d’ on this recent cruise did a great job of making sure everyone got to sit at mealtimes with the people they wanted to (or not as the case may have been at times). It’s difficult at times, but he was certainly up to the task.
All meals were way above average and surprised everyone with the variety of what was being offered. The galley and wait staffs were also amenable to special orders (within reason, of course).
One thing that was surprising is that in this fish-rich comer of the world, no provisioning of fresh items was done. Seafood items like Halibut and King Crab were on board from the beginning.
Amenities aboard the Spirit of Oceanus were nice for this type of cruise. There was a lunch and breakfast option of sitting outside and ordering from the small grill with a big menu. Rooms were surprisingly spacious, and there was plenty of closet and drawer space. Housekeeping was terrific. But for those looking for big-ship bells and whistles such as casinos and entertainment and lots to do, look elsewhere. This is just not that type of experience.
Cruise West World Cruise
For 2010, Cruise West has announced a series of great itineraries that people looking for something different may want to consider, including a 335-world cruise traveling westward from Singapore.
Called the “Voyages of the Great Explorers” it’s going to be captained by industry veteran Reidulf Maalen. I can easily vouch that anyone who sails with Reidulf is going to be treated to a trip helmed by a master for whom providing a terrific guest experience is extremely important.
Naturally, the cruise will be sold in an extensive range of segments. Other destinations on other Cruise West ships include Cocos Islands (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Antarctica/South Georgia Island/The Falklands, Alaska, the Danube, the Galapagos, and the Columbia and Snake Rivers — and more.
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